I think it’s fair to say that one of the most misunderstood aspects of our Catholic faith is the veneration of relics and the part they play in our relationship with God. I thought it worthwhile to share some of the most common misconceptions so that we can all be well educated about relics and their proper use in the course of our lives of Christian discipleship.
What is a relic?
A relic is some object, most commonly part of the body or clothes, remaining as a memorial of a departed saint. Relics are held in reverence by the Church and sometimes associated with miraculous healings and other acts of God. They are often used by God to give us a gift of something spiritual (grace) by means of physical things.
It’s not magic…
Something both Catholics and non-Catholics often confuse about relics is that folks believe they are a sort of magic charm, and the use of these material things “forces” God to do something for us. Relics don’t compel God to work in any way. Their use depends on God, who established their capability, so their effects are divine, not natural, in their origin. An example of Jesus himself giving a spiritual gift through physical matter is when he healed a blind man with mud and spittle in John 9:1-7.
Nor is it worshipping matter…
The great biblical scholar, St. Jerome, declared, “We do not worship, we do not adore, for fear that we should bow down to the creature rather than to the creator, but we venerate the relics of the martyrs in order the better to adore him whose martyrs they are” (Ad Riparium, i, P.L., XXII, 907).
The use of the bones of Elisha brought a dead man to life (2 Kings 13:20-21), the woman cured of a hemorrhage by touching the hem of Christ’s cloak (Matthew 9:20-22), the sick who were healed when Peter’s shadow passed over them (Acts 5:14-16) and handkerchiefs or aprons which had touched the body of St. Paul were used to heal the sick and possessed (Acts 19:11-12). Each of these are clear, scriptural examples of God using relics to impart his grace upon his people.
It’s a tradition that goes right back to the early Church
Written documents going right back to AD 156 show explicitly how the Church has always venerated relics, and oral tradition goes even further. This is the earliest written account and documents what Christians did following the martyrdom of St. Polycarp: “We took up his bones, which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and laid them in a suitable place, where the Lord will permit us to gather ourselves together, as we are able, in gladness and joy and to celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom.”
Fakes: some, the majority: no
It’s fair to say that in the past there have been several incidences of fake relics but, just like with any assertion, when something is claimed to be a relic it goes under some intense scrutiny to test the validity of the claim. Have there been any frauds? Sure. But in most cases, relics are either known to be genuine or there is some reason to think they may be genuine, even if complete proof is impossible. Each of the relics that will be placed in the altar at the Cathedral has documentation certifying authenticity.
The relics of the true cross would not fill a ten-ton truck
A common assertion by cynics is that if all the pieces of the true cross were brought together you would end up filling a ten-ton truck with all the pieces of wood. The charge is nonsense. In 1870, a Frenchman, Rohault de Fleury, catalogued all the relics of the True Cross, including relics that were said to have existed but were lost. He measured the existing relics and estimated the volume of the missing ones. Then he added up the figures and discovered that the fragments, if glued together, would not have made up more than one-third of a cross used at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion.
If you haven't already, I invite and encourage you to take a moment sometime from May 28th through June 3rd to stop by the Activity Center and make a visit to the Our Lady of the Angels Chapel and see the relics that will be placed inside the main altar at the new Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral.
Relics included: The True Cross, Saint Peter the Apostle, Saint Paul the Apostle, Saint Reparatus, Saint Gaudiosus, Saint Thomas Becket, Saint Francis de Sales, Saint John Neumann, Saint Pope John Paul II, Saint Jane Francis de Chantal, Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque, Saint Paul of the Cross, Saint John Vianney, Saint Therese of Lisieux, Saint Gemma Galgani, Saint Leonine Aviat, Saint Francis of Assisi, Blessed Louis Brisson